2018-02-15 / Front Page

City Weighs Pros, Cons of Bike Share

By Brooke Constance White

Proponents say a bike share program in Newport could expand tourism opportunities and decrease traffic, while offering residents without transportation a chance for greater mobility. But city councilors have raised concerns in recent meetings, and say the prospect must be thoroughly researched and vetted.

Some of the concerns voiced during a Jan. 24 council meeting included committing city resources toward building and maintaining a bike share program, the financial strain it could put on already established bicycle rental businesses in Newport, and the potential burden of liability. The council voted to have the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) scrutinize the prospect and make a recommendation to the council by June.

Although Mayor Harry Winthrop said in a phone interview that he’s not opposed to bike share, he doesn’t believe the city should be in partnership with any business, including bike share companies.

“I think it should function on its own,” Winthrop said, adding that he doesn’t want bike share to interfere with bike rental programs that existing businesses have in place. “If for some reason it can’t be done without a partnership with the city than I don’t think it should be done.”

Since the council meeting, the commission has spoken with several companies to learn more about what bike share programs look like in 2018.

Bari Freeman, executive director of Bike Newport, a nonprofit focused on improving and encouraging biking in and around the city, is a BPAC member and said bike share programs have evolved to the point where the city council’s concerns will no longer be issues.

Outdated information has been circulating, said Freeman, who remains hopeful that the commission will be able to educate the council and community through public forums in the coming months.

“Bike share has changed so much; it used to be a much bigger footprint and needed much more involvement from municipalities,” she said, adding that lighter bicycles and expanded options for bike docks allow companies to provide services without depending on city staff or resources. “[The programs] rely on local partners and businesses to manage the system and maintain the bikes.”

Freeman said that while all the companies BPAC has looked into carry the burden of liability themselves, only some shoulder the cost of the equipment and maintenance, which will be an important factor when the commission makes its recommendation.

Another key aspect to a potential bike share in a place like Newport is making sure that it is equitable and accessible to all. Freeman said that a few of the businesses BPAC has examined have an “unbanked” option for those without credit or debit cards who want to pay with cash, which she believes is important to ensuring broad access. Some companies even offer bicycles for people with physical disabilities.

Councilors Jamie Bova and Susan Taylor introduced the bike share proposal at the Jan. 24 meeting, saying the programs are particularly good for residents who don’t have the financial ability or space to store their own bikes. From Bova’s experience, prices for bike-share use are affordable, making them ideal for someone who wants a low-cost, low-maintenance means of transportation. Bova says these bicycles, which are designed for leisure rather than speed and long-distance comfort, cater to those trying to get from point A to point B, rather than to cyclists who want longer, scenic rides.

“I think the tourism aspect will still be there for bike rentals from local bike shops,” Bova said, adding that she supports finding more ways to get cars off the road and get people outside and exercising. “I think it will be something that residents will really use and find beneficial but I think the experienced cyclist will still want to rent a road bike to see Ocean Drive and other places around here.”

Robert Purdy, owner of Newport Bicycle, said he’s not happy about the prospect of a bike share program coming to the city, insisting it would take away business from his rental program. From June to September he rents approximately 1,500 bicycles at $35 a day or $7 an hour. He said the handful of local bike shops, including Newport Bicycle, Ten Speed Spokes, Scooter World and Pedal Power in Middletown, rely heavily on income earned during the four or five months a year when the weather is warmer.

“Generally, in these situations, cities give companies access to land for docks and bikes,” Purdy said. “So if the city is going to give them a piece of land to rent bikes around town, we who pay taxes to this city want a piece of land, too, so that we can have a spot to rent out bikes.”

Bike share programs, which have become increasingly popular in large cities such as Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. in the last 10 years, allow individuals to pick up bicycles at various locations, or docks, and drop them off at another dock down the road. Rates generally range from a few dollars an hour to $7 or more a day, and some bike shares offer monthly memberships, which allow for unlimited rides.

Bike share programs, Purdy says, work better in bigger cities like Providence or Boston. “I don’t see a huge need for it in such a small city when we have four shops already renting bikes out,” he said. “I bet between all of us, we have 200 rental bikes available … in Newport so I think we should be pushing the rentals that are already have available.”

Freeman said she believes that the more Newport embraces a bicycle culture, the better the local bike industry will fair.

“It’s different, but I really hope that everyone is open to discovering what it’s all about,” Freeman said of bike share programs. “I really believe that we can find the right program for Newport that won’t be a burden for the city and will instead be an enormous benefit for everyone.”

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